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Lessons Learned from 5 Years of Writing for Go Overseas

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Natalie Southwick
Topic Expert

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations.

Lessons Learned from 5 Years of Writing for Go Overseas

A few months ago, I forced myself to sit down and write a bittersweet email. It wasn't quite a breakup email (I'm not that heartless, usually), but it wasn't quite not a breakup email either. I'd just found out that I'd been offered a job that I desperately wanted, and I was getting ready to move across the country three weeks later.

This was objectively great news, but it also meant that I needed to start extricating myself from all of my other jobs (yes, I had a lot of other jobs, because #gradschoolproblems) -- including this one I've enjoyed as a columnist for Go Overseas. Giving my two weeks' notice at my job tutoring bored undergrads in Spanish was easy, but telling the editorial staff at Go Overseas that I wouldn't be writing for them anymore was a lot harder.

I've been writing for Go Overseas since 2012, which I believe makes me the longest-running contributor they've had. When I started, I was halfway through a year volunteer teaching in Bogotá, Colombia. I was hoping to keep writing while abroad, and it seemed like a fun way to learn more about other parts of the world.

Now, five years, multiple cross-continental moves and dozens of passport stamps later, I finally have a little time to reflect on just how much I've gotten out of it.

What It's Like to Write for Go Overseas

It's easy for publications to make empty promises to writers about what they'll gain from contributing. There's the dreaded "exposure to our audience" (code for "we won't pay you"), the "flexible schedule" ("we'll ask you to write things at the last minute then forget about you for three weeks"), "opportunity for advancement" ("we have sky-high turnover so we'll probably ask you to be a managing editor before you're even familiar with our stylebook"), and many other flashing red warning signs that make any self-respecting freelance writer flee in the other direction.

Like dating, a few bad partnerships can leave writers feeling burned and afraid to commit to anything. There are lots of good publications out there, though, and I was fortunate to connect with this one early in my budding international writing career.

During my time as a contributor, I had the opportunity to meet team members from other contributors to the CEO -- all supportive, interesting people committed to a world of better, more meaningful travel. I was encouraged to pitch articles when I had ideas, and my editors worked with me to make them a reality.

What It's Like to Write for Go Overseas

Even though we're scattered all around the globe, I really have felt like part of a community of like-minded people, and I've enjoyed reading and learning from the other contributors' articles. I always felt a little burst of pride when someone else shared one of my articles on Facebook or Twitter like I'd passed some kind of test. People liked what I wrote enough to share it!

One of the ways I can tell I'm getting old is that five years seemed to go by so quickly. I can't believe I've been submitting monthly articles for that long -- until I take a step back and think about everything that's happened in that time period. Here are just a few of the things I've done while writing for Go Overseas:

  • Lived in 11 different apartments in three countries (Colombia, Brazil, and the U.S.)
  • Visited five other countries (Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Canada, New Zealand)
  • Held at least a dozen different jobs
  • Started (and finished!) grad school
  • Applied for five visas
  • Added a whole extra set of pages to my passport (to fit all those visas)
  • Been robbed twice
  • Hiked the Inca Trail
  • Met with the Colombian Vice-President
  • Lived within walking distance of Rio's Ipanema beach
  • Ridden on approximately 2 billion buses
  • Visited seven of Colombia's
  • Bought two bicycles, on two different continents
  • Sold two bicycles, on two different continents
  • Eaten goat, once and only once

That's plenty of life experience, although I can't promise that any other writer will be fortunate -- or foolish -- enough to do the same things. While writing for Go Overseas isn't a guarantee that you'll see Machu Picchu or have your visa application approved, I've also gained a few insights from this great experience that might be applicable to other aspiring writers, regardless of geographic location or affinity for biking.

Lesson #1: Write What You Know

Lessons from Writing for Go Overseas: Write What You Know

Go Overseas covers a wide range of topics related to life and travel abroad, so it's possible for any internationally-minded writer to find a beat that interests them and allows them to write from their own experience.

This is good for both the writers and the audience: as a reader, you're more likely to believe what I write about using travel health insurance if I've actually done it myself -- or talked to people who have -- rather than just copying the text of some article. The expertise and personal experience that Go Overseas' diverse contributors bring to the table adds so much value to everything they publish.

Plus, it's fun for us! It's possible for good writers to fake knowledge about all kinds of things, but it's far more exciting to write about subjects you really care about and to which you can apply your own knowledge -- like volunteering in Latin America or misconceptions about teaching English abroad. Getting the chance to write about topics that really aligned with my own interests and experience made me excited to work on my articles every month and helped keep me motivated.

Lesson #2: Learn What You Don't Know

On the flip side, writing consistently about the broad spectrum of international opportunities meant I had the chance to ask questions and learn much more about different aspects of overseas travel that I might never have explored otherwise.

While I felt comfortable offering my personal perspective on subjects like post-volunteer career options or analyzing nonprofit financial reports, there were plenty of times when I thought it was better to let someone else talk. Interviewing experts and other travelers for articles taught me so much more about a wide range of topics, from the future of gap years to how study abroad programs work to keep students safe. Working to better inform our readers helped me become more informed, too, so it was just a win-win all around.

Lesson #3: Being a Travel 'Fairy Godmother' Is Awesome

Lessons from Writing for Go Overseas: Being a Travel 'Fairy Godmother' Is Awesome

I've always loved exploring and learning more about other countries and cultures, and it's been so exciting to help support a site that encourages other people to do exactly that. Writing for Go Overseas was basically the published version of a conversation I regularly have, in which I peer pressure people into deciding to travel -- and it's a conversation I never get sick of.

One of the intimidating moments in starting a career abroad is the realization that there's rarely a "right" way to do it -- unless you're in the foreign service or a similar tracked program, you kind of end up fumbling around until you hopefully end up close to the right field. I think it's important to be honest about this, but I also loved the chance to use my experience -- and the experiences of many others -- as evidence that it can be done.

Lesson #4: It's Not All Fun and Sparkles

Everyone knows that travel can have a dark side, and I really appreciated being given the green light to delve into some of the messier issues related to life abroad, from sexual harassment to the harsh realities of economic opportunity and lack of diversity in many study abroad programs.

I treasure all of my international experience, but I also recognize that I've been fortunate and privileged to have access to those opportunities. We've all read those pseudo-inspirational articles by wealthy trust-fund Westerners (or worse, actually encountered these people in the wild) who decided to just quit their jobs and travel to "find themselves." That's not the reality for the vast majority of us, though, and I think these types of stories are insulting to the many people who have to work incredibly hard and overcome significant adversity to go overseas.

And that's not even getting into the even more serious concerns about the impact of travel and tourism on the host communities -- a subject that often gets glossed over in swoon-worthy travel writing with one sentence about "smiling locals" or whatever. Thinking about local impact should be absolutely central to travel decisions, especially for those of us who are mostly consumers in our undeniably globalized world.

It might sometimes make me a bit of a Debbie Downer, but I believe we have to consider these issues in order to make choices to be more conscientious and intentional travelers. Unless you're going to shut yourself off in an all-inclusive resort, spending meaningful time overseas is going to involve engaging with the local culture and communities -- so let's talk about how to do it while staying safe and trying not to be an imperialist jerk.

Lesson #5: The 'Global Network' Is Real

Lessons from Writing for Go Overseas: The 'Global Network' Is Real

Plenty of people talk a big game about the "digital nomad" lifestyle, but succeeding as a freelance writer internationally is about more than just finding a paying gig. It's also about developing strong working relationships with other people in the field and finding an employer/contractor that supports what you want to do and values you as a contributor (this is applicable to all kinds of jobs, actually).

I've gotten writing opportunities through people I've met through international writers' groups, and I've tried to pay it forward when I could. And it goes beyond just professional connections -- other writers have provided travel tips, pitching advice and even housing. For example, when I found out another writer I knew through email would be traveling through Bogotá on Thanksgiving, I demanded she come to our local gringo celebration.

There's no shame in taking on a writing gig to pay the bills -- freelancing is, essentially, all about hustling at all times. If you're lucky enough to find something that really aligns with your experience and interests, though, you notice the difference. Working with like-minded people and being afforded the freedom to pitch my own ideas helped me gain so much more, personally and professionally, than I would have from some random content-producing gig. And yeah, I got to meet some pretty awesome people too!

Some Final Thoughts on My Experience with Go Overseas

I'm generally terrible at formal goodbyes -- a trait I blame, at least in part, on my international movements through the last decade. Because I'm always leaving places and popping up in new places (and many of my friends are doing the same thing), I prefer to just say "see you soon," with the assumption that we will, in fact, see each other soon. Sometimes it takes three years, sometimes it's in another country, but it almost always works out in the end.

So to this wonderful community of inspiring, fascinating, supportive, adventurous humans: I'll see you all soon, either here in NYC or wherever in the world our collective paths take us next!